51 A Investigations
Massachusetts Law requires that certain individuals (known as “mandated reporters”)that possess reasonable cause to believe that a child under 18 is suffering from serious physical and emotional injury resulting from abuse and/or neglect, to report such situation to the Department of Children and Families.(“DCF”) (is done orally and in writing). Examples of mandated reporters are professionals in the medical field (doctors, medical interns, emergency medical technicians, podiatrists); public or private school teachers; professionals in early education or preschool; social workers; foster parents; law enforcement and court personnel; and professionals in the mental health field, just to name a few. Reports can also be made to DCF by non-professionals, or every day citizens.
Massachusetts has promulgated laws defining what circumstances constitute as “abuse” and “neglect”, under DCF’s Regulations: 110 CMR section 2.00. Although much case law has not developed into challenging DCF’s standards in making findings as to what is “abuse” or “neglect”, a November 2014 decision out of Middlesex Superior Court found against DCF’s ruling against a parent for “neglect”. For a review of that finding visit the Office’s article : “Can A Finding Of “Neglect” By DCF Be Sustained Where A Child Was Present During A Parental Argument?” along with its explanation of DCF’s procedures in relation to 51 A investigations/Reporting.
The threshold of “reasonable cause” is rather low and easily met, implying a low degree of accuracy under which the suspicion of child “abuse” or “neglect” is triggered. There are many subsequent consequences once a 51A is filed; including Emergency Removal Proceedings initiated by DCF, to remove the child from the home for an indefinite amount of time; the Filing of a Care and Protection Proceeding; and/or the opening of a 51B investigation. It is of the highest importance that parents fully understate their rights under such situations, as their parental rights may be stripped away either for a definite amount of time, or an indefinite amount of time, depending on DCF’s actions.
The report (51A) is screened by DCF to see if it meets their criteria for “abuse” and/or “neglect”. After the completion of the screening process, DCF determines whether the report is “Screened-In”, or “Screened-Out”. If the report is screened in, then it may be assigned for further emergency action/investigation by the Child Protective Services (CPS) Investigation or Assessment Response. A CPS investigative response may require immediate intervention by DCF in regards to the family, whereas an assessment response may be less intrusive.
The report may also be referred to the District Attorney’s Office by DCF, where a criminal investigation may be undertaken, and criminal charges filed in relation to any subsequent developments as a result of the initial reporting.TIMELINES:
A screening based on an emergency response is completed within two (2) days, and for a non-emergency response, a screening may take up to three (3) or more business days.
An emergency investigation begins within two (2) hours, and must be completed within five (5) business days of receipt of said report.
Non-emergency investigation normally begins within two (2) business days and must be completed within fifteen (15) business days of receipt of said report.
An initial assessment normally begins within two (2) business days and is normally completed within fifteen (15) business days of receipt of said report.
A comprehensive assessment does take up more time, and it normally begins within two (2) business days, but a final determination make take up to forty-five (45) business days of receipt of said report.
Having an attorney that fully understands your rights in this critical and complex area, is of the utmost importance. Especially where the intricate and complex interplay between Family, Criminal and Child Welfare Law are conjoined.